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Houston Grand Opera’s Rigoletto:
Verily, A Creation Worthy
of Shakespeare

by Harley Schlanger
June 2009

Houston Grand Opera
Conductor Patrick Summers
April 17 to May 2, 2009


Virtually every time an opera company performs Verdi’s masterpiece, Rigoletto, the program notes include the following famous quote from Verdi, about Victor Hugo’s story, “Le Roi s’amuse”, from which Rigoletto is derived:

Le Roi s’amuse is one of the greatest subjects and perhaps the greatest drama of modern times. Tribolet (renamed Rigoletto for Verdi’s opera) is a creation worthy of Shakespeare.”

While its inclusion in the notes is proper, what was meant by Verdi is often improperly understood, and the production does not always live up to what Verdi intended, in making such a clear and profound declamation. Happily, the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) production lived up to the intent embodied in that quote, offering a performance of Rigoletto that was true to the classical idea of “tragedy,” and, as such, was both provocative and intensely moving.

Verdi and Shakespeare

There is no doubt that Verdi was well versed in Shakespeare, who he declared to be “one of my favorite poets.” In the same letter in which he made that proclamation, he wrote that “I have had him (Shakespeare) in my hands from my earliest childhood and I read and re-read him continually.”

Among the volumes on the top shelf of the book case next to his bed at Sant' Agata, his beloved home, was the complete works of Shakespeare, next to volumes of the complete string quartets of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and the complete plays of Schiller.

Indeed, the salon he frequented from his early years in Milan, in the 1840s, was organized by Countess Maffei, whose husband, Andrea, was a translator of the works of both Shakespeare and Schiller, and their dramas were often the subject of discussion and debate during the long evenings at the Maffeis. Verdi wrote three operas based on Shakespeare’s plays —“Macbeth” in 1865, “Otello” in 1887, and “Falstaff,” from the plays on Henry IV and V, and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” —and was working on “King Lear,” when he received the commission for Rigoletto, in February 1851.

Verdi also wrote operas based on four dramas by Friedrich Schiller: “Giovanna d'Arco/Maid of Orleans” in 1845, “I Masnadieri/The Robbers” in 1847, “Luisa Miller/Cabal and Love” in 1849 and “Don Carlo,” in 1867 and revised in 1884.

Credit: Photo by Felix Sanchez
Eric Cutler (Duke of Mantua) and Scott Hendricks (Rigoletto)

Verdi’s conception of tragedy, as it unfolds in “Rigoletto,” was sharpened by his lifelong study of the works of Shakespeare and Schiller. For both of these great masters, the idea of tragedy was that of a society destined, by its own axioms and practices, to fail. Classical tragedy, from Aeschylus and Sophocles forward, was never about the “failure” of a “tragic hero,” as the romantics of the last two centuries, who have dominated academic discussions, would have you believe. Rather, the subject of tragic drama is the pervasive corruption of a society, which is fated to a tragic end due to its corrupt practices, and in which the protagonist, regardless of whatever sympathetic qualities he may have possessed, was unable to overcome the destiny of that society.

In “King Lear,” for example, the tragedy which engrossed Verdi prior to taking on “Rigoletto,” Shakespeare presents the story of a doomed kingdom, doomed not by any one individual figure, but by all of them. There is no redemption within the play, nor is there a simple “moral lesson” to be gleaned. The purpose of writing tragedy—as Aeschylus would inform today’s hapless, and clueless, babbling commentators—is not to offer options within the drama, to be selected by the audience, which might have allowed a happier, alternative ending. “If only Cordelia would have been honest,” a college professor once lectured an honor’s symposium, “perhaps the kingdom would have been spared the disastrous outcome of `King Lear.'”

Shakespeare was not writing to let his audience off the hook. He was writing to teach them the history of civilization, how cultures of the past, which may have accomplished outstanding achievements, produced wise and learned sages, and improved the standards of living of their population, failed, when the principles which enabled such breakthroughs to occur, had been abandoned, replaced by the daily habits and unthinking routines of the once-great people. There have been many tragic endings in history, as societies crumbled under the weight of flawed practices and inadequate education, when dullness born of success replaced the hunger for discovery and justice.

This disaster, Shakespeare is telling his audience in Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet, actually befell a society much like our own, when endemic corruption replaced respect for the dignity of man, and the manic striving for wealth and power displaced the pursuit of new ideas, as the force driving the leaders of the polity. The same is found in Schiller. For example, in his powerful “Don Carlos,” the Spain, which had been a meeting place of cultures, became the rotting center of the Holy Roman Empire and the murderous Inquisition.

It is a tragedy in itself, that modern audiences have embraced the “tragic hero” theory of the Romantics, who moved aggressively, and with a bitter hatred, against the classical form of drama. Great tragedians composed their histories—for most of these works are real history—with the belief that an audience would become better only when confronted, by viewing on stage, acts of cruelty and barbarism, which are based on a true history, and which had destroyed a previous civilization, and in which they could see, if only dimly, shadows of the same, in their own culture.

Rigoletto As A Shakespearean Drama

Verdi’s Rigoletto is definitely such a classical, Shakespearean tragic drama, as it occurs in a society which possesses no redeeming qualities. While one may be genuinely touched by what appears to be Rigoletto’s love for his daughter, is it possible to overlook his role in supporting, even inciting, the disgusting behavior of the Duke’s degenerate court? “La maledizione,” the curse —which was originally the title Verdi had chosen for the opera—which is hurled at Rigoletto by Monterone, whose family had been victimized by the Duke’s nasty licentiousness, and which is the theme of the opera, only makes sense because there is no way out of the degeneration of the court, no matter how much Rigoletto tries to “become another person” behind closed doors at home.

Credit: Photo by Felix Sanchez
Scott Hendrick (Rigoletto) and Albina Shagimuratova (Gilda)

As for sympathy for Gilda, her self-dooming desire to protect the Duke, is not based on naiveté or love, but self-delusion. She goes to her death believing that he really loves her. Of course, he is totally unaware of her ultimate sacrifice on his behalf. Her death is “tragic,” in that it is sad, but not surprising, in a society where there is no virtue which goes unpunished, no evil desire which cannot be fulfilled. One might as well argue that there is some decency in Maddalena, the whore who works for her murderous brother Sparafucile; after all, she acts to spare the Duke, though with a lascivious intention in mind.

Rigoletto’s ultimate reckoning, like that of Oedipus or Macbeth, was foretold early in the drama, and his fall comes as no great surprise. It is Verdi’s genius that, even though the audience strongly suspects that the curse will be realized, we still are pulled into the opera, and follow the unfolding of the “maledizione” with rapt attention. The unfolding is relentless, and the audience is made aware of it from the ominous opening notes of the horns in the overture, in a theme which is repeated throughout the opera. And despite this prescience, shaped by Verdi, from the outset, that something horrible is coming, the audience is still shaken by the ending, and leaves the theater uneasy and somewhat troubled.

HGO Production Intense and Relentlessness

The production last month, by Houston Grand Opera, offered vintage Verdi, presenting the tragedy in its most profound classical form. The tension from the overture was sustained throughout, highlighting the relentless march of fate to the very end. There was no let up, no escape. At the same time, the singing was marvelous, especially in the ensemble pieces, as the interplay between the voices was transparent—including the voices from the orchestra, as Verdi offers strings and winds frequent opportunities, both as sectionals, and as solos, to interact, as distinct voices, with the singers.

Audiences in Houston have come to expect excellence from the orchestra, under the direction of Conductor Patrick Summers. This was again the case in Rigoletto, as he demonstrated the right touch throughout, especially in the beautiful duets at the end of Act I, between Rigoletto and Gilda, then Gilda and the Duke. Summers let the singers set the pace, with the orchestra functioning almost as an additional voice in the duets, at the same time serving to heighten the drama, repeatedly sounding the alarm for the dangers lurking ahead.

Scott Hendricks, baritone, was a superb Rigoletto, vocally, and in a surprising way, with a kind of athleticism which highlights the extent to which Rigoletto’s physical deformity is mirrored in the depraved role he plays in the court. Soprano Albina Shagimuratova demonstrated in her Gilda why she will be a featured performer for some time to come. She sang the demanding role almost effortlessly, with a luminescent quality in her upper register, which combined sweetness and power. Hendricks and Shagimuratova are both former Houston Grand Opera Studio artists, once again demonstrating that its alumni leave the program capable of handling leading roles with great skill and artistry.

Eric Cutler’s Duke of Mantua (tenor) conveyed the two sides of his character quite effectively, showing that the charming seducer and the brutal misogynist can be one and the same. In the scene with Gilda, as the poor student Gualtier Malde, he sang with a winning tenderness, which is at odds with his dismissive view of women in “La donna e mobile.” On opening night, his singing of “La donna e mobile” came across somewhat flat; however, when I saw a second performance, Cutler captured the ribald character of the Duke, charming the audience, as Verdi had intended.

The final act was quite chilling, the staging brilliantly done, with a chorus effectively recreating the howling of the storm, as Rigoletto’s plan to outflank the curse goes awry, and the curse is fulfilled. Mezzo-soprano Maria Markina’s Maddalena was overtly sensual, squeezing out every bit of lusty evil in the role, while bass Andrea Silvestrelli as Sparafucile was a truly sinister presence on stage, whether lurking in the shadows, or preparing to kill at his inn.

As the theater emptied, with Rigoletto’s final cry of anguish still ringing in the ears of those leaving, it was clear that a certain unsettling feeling would remain with them for some time. By thus jolting the audience out of its comfort zone, the HGO production of Rigoletto had fulfilled the intention of Verdi, by presenting “a creation worthy of Shakespeare.”

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